Vaquita: a porpoise caught between people and money

By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

When I first learned of the critically endangered vaquita in early 2015, there were an estimated 97 individuals remaining as reported by CIRVA* (Morell 2014). I was a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, and I, of all people, had never heard of the vaquita. Today, there are an estimated 19 vaquita left (Roth 2019).

Digital painting of a vaquita mother with her calf (Image Source: Aquarium of the Pacific).

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a small porpoise endemic to the Sea of Cortez in the northern region of the Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most endangered marine mammal and has been for many years, and yet, I had not heard of the vaquita. It wasn’t until I listened to a lunchtime seminar hosted by NOAA Fisheries, that I heard about the porpoise. As a young scientist, “in the field”, I was shocked to realize that I was just learning about an animal, let alone a cetacean, actively going extinct in my lifetime. I believe it’s our job to inform those around us of news in our expertise, and I had failed. I wasn’t informed. As much as I tried in the past four years to describe the decline of the smallest cetacean to anyone who’d listen, I was only reaching a few people at a time. But, today, the vaquita is finally capturing the public’s eye thanks to celebrity support and a feature-length film.

A rare photo of a vaquita (Image Source: Tom Jefferson via the Marine Mammal Center)

From executive producer, Leonardo DiCaprio, comes the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner, “Sea of Shadows”. The story of the vaquita truly is an “eco-thriller” and one worth watching. This is not your typical plot line of an endangered species tragically going extinct without action. The vaquita’s story boasts big-name players, such as the Mexican Navy, internationally recognized scientists, Mexican cartels, Chinese mafia, celebrities, the National Marine Mammal Foundation, and Sea Shepherd. At the center of this documentary is the elusive vaquita. The vaquita is not hunted, in fact, this species is not desirable for fisherman. The animal is not aggressive and, in contrast, is notoriously shy, only surfacing to breathe. Furthermore, its name roughly translates into “little cow” because of the rings around its eyes and its docile nature. So, why is this cute creature on the road to extinction? The answer: the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Sea of Shadows” official trailer by National Geographic

The vaquita occupy a small part of the Sea of Cortez where totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large fish in the drum family, is also endemic. If you’re wondering what a small porpoise and a large fish have in common, then you’d be close to recognizing that is the key to understanding this tragedy. Both species are roughly the same size, one to two meters in length with similar girths. The totoaba, although said to have tender meat, is caught for only one organ: the swim bladder. Now referred to as the “cocaine of the sea”, the dried swim bladders of the totoaba are sold to Mexican cartels who then export the product to China. Once in China, illegal markets sell the swim bladders for up to $100,000USD. Unfortunately, the nets used to illegally catch totoaba, also catch the vaquita. The porpoise has no economic value to the fishermen and therefore are tossed as bycatch. The vaquita is the innocent bystander in a war for money and power.

A man displays the catch from an illegal gillnet, including the totoaba in his arms, and a vaquita, below, that was bycatch (Image Source: Omar Vidal via Aquarium of the Pacific/NOAA Fisheries).

Watching a charismatic species severely decline because of human greed is horrific. The film, however, focuses on the effort of a few incredible organizations that band together in the fight to save the vaquita. Moreover, the multimillion-dollar project, Vaquita CPR, is still ongoing. On a more positive note, in October of 2019, scientists spotted six vaquita during continued conservation and monitoring efforts (Blust & Desk 2019). The path to saving a critically endangered species, especially one that is thought not to do well in captivity, is challenging. The vaquita’s recovery path has many complicated connections which for what appears to be an uphill battle. But, we, the people, are responsible for this. We must support research and conservation by using our voice to share what is happening, for a porpoise and for the world.

*Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita)

Citations:

Blust, Kendal, and Fronteras Desk. “Photo Sparks Increased Concern over Fishing in Vaquita Refuge.” Arizona Public Media, 25 Oct. 2019, https://news.azpm.org/p/news-topical-nature/2019/10/25/160806-photo-sparks-increased-concern-over-fishing-in-vaquita-refuge/.

Morell, Virginia. “Vaquita Porpoise Faces Imminent Extinction-Can It Be Saved?” National Geographic, 15 Aug. 2014, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/8/140813-vaquita-gulf-california-mexico-totoaba-gillnetting-china-baiji/.

Roth, Annie. “The ‘Little Cow’ of the Sea Nears Extinction.” National Geographic, 17 Sept. 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/09/vaquita-the-porpoise-familys-smallest-member-nears-extinction/#close.

Marine Mammal Observing: Standardization is key

By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

For the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to be the marine mammal observer aboard the NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada for 10 days in May. Both trips covered transects in the Northern California Current Ecosystem during the same time of year, but things looked very different from my chair on the fly bridge. This trip, in particular, highlighted the importance of standardization, seeing as it was the second replicate of the same area. Other scientists and crew members repeatedly asked me the same questions that made me realize just how important it is to have standards in scientific practices and communicating them.

Northern right whale dolphin porpoising out of the water beside the ship while in transit. May 2019. Image source: Alexa Kownacki

The questions:

  1. What do you actually do here and why are you doing it?
  2. Is this year the same as last year in terms of weather, sightings, and transect locations?
  3. Did you expect to see greater or fewer sightings (number and diversity)?
  4. What is this Beaufort Sea State scale that you keep referring to?

All of these are important scientific questions that influence our hypothesis-testing research, survey methods, expected results, and potential conclusions. Although the entire science party aboard the ship conducted marine science, we all had our own specialties and sometimes only knew the basics, if that, about what the other person was doing. It became a perfect opportunity to share our science and standards across similar, but different fields.

Now, to answer those questions:

  1. a) What do you actually do here and b) why are you doing it?

a) As the only marine mammal observer, I stand watch during favorable weather conditions while the ship is in transit, scanning from 0 to 90 degrees off the starboard side (from the front of the ship to a right angle towards the right side when facing forwards). Meanwhile, an application on an iPad called SeaScribe, records the ship’s exact location every 15 seconds, even when no animal is sighted. This process allows for the collection of absence data, that is, data when no animals are present. The SeaScribe program records the survey lines, along with manual inputs that I add, including weather and observer information. When I spot a marine mammal, I immediately mark an exact location on a hand held GPS, use my binoculars to identify the species, and add information to the sighting on the SeaScribe program, such as species, distance to the sighted animal(s), the degree (angle) to the sighting, number of animals in a group, behavior, and direction if traveling.

b) Marine mammal observing serves many different purposes. In this case, observing collects information about what species are where at what time. By piggy-backing on these large-scale, offshore oceanographic NOAA surveys, we have the unique opportunity to survey along standardized transect lines during different times of the year. From replicate survey data, we can start to form an idea of which species use which areas and what oceanographic conditions may impact species distributions. Currently there is not much consistent marine mammal data collected over these offshore areas between Northern California and Washington State, so our work is aiming to fill this knowledge gap.

Alexa observing on the R/V Shimada in May 2019, all bundled up. Image Source: Alexa Kownacki

  1. What is this Beaufort Sea State scale that you keep referring to?

Great question! It took me a while to realize that this standard measuring tool to estimate wind speeds and sea conditions, is not commonly recognized even among other sea-goers. The Beaufort Sea State, or BSS, uses an empirical scale that ranges from 0-12 with 0 being no wind and calm seas, to 12 being hurricane-force winds with 45+ ft seas. It is frequently referenced by scientists in oceanography, marine science, and climate science as a universally-understood metric. The BSS was created in 1805 by Francis Beaufort, a hydrographer in the Royal Navy, to standardize weather conditions across the fleet of vessels. By the mid-1850s, the BSS was standardized to non-naval use for sailing vessels, and in 1916, expanded to include information specific to the seas and not the sails1. We in the marine mammal observation field constantly collect BSS information while on survey to measure the quality of survey conditions that may impact our observations. BSS data allows us to measure the extent of our survey range, both in the distance that we are likely to sight animals and also the likelihood of sighting anything. Therefore, the BSS scale gives us an important indication of how much absence data we have collected, in addition to presence data.

A description of the Beaufort Sea State Scale. Image source: National Weather Service.

 

  1. Is this year the same as last year in terms of weather, sightings, and transect locations?

The short answer is no. Observed differences in marine mammal sightings in terms of both species diversity and number of animals between years can be normal. There are many potential explanatory variables, from differences in currents, upwelling strength, El Nino index levels, water temperatures, or, what was obvious in this case: sighting conditions. The weather in May 2019 varied greatly from that in May 2018. Last year, I observed for nearly every day because the Beaufort Sea State (BSS) was frequently less than a four. However, this year, more often than not, the BSS greater than or equal to five. A BSS of 5 equates to approximately 17-21 knots of breeze with 6-foot waves and the water appears to have many “white horses” or pronounced white caps with sea spray. Additionally, mechanical issue with winches delayed and altered our transect locations. Therefore, although multiple transects from May 2018 were also surveyed during May 2019, there were a few lines that do not have data for both cruises.

May 2018 with a BSS 1

May 2019 with a BSS 6

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Did you expect to see greater or fewer sightings (number and diversity)?

Knowing that I had less favorable sighting conditions and less amount of effort observing this year, it is not surprising that I observed fewer marine mammals in total count and in species diversity. Even less surprising is that on the day with the best weather, where the BSS was less than a five, I recorded the most sightings with the highest species count. May 2018 felt a bit like a tropical vacation because we had surprisingly sunny days with mild winds, and during May 2019 we had some rough seas with gale force winds. Additionally, as an observer, I need to remove as much bias as possible. So, yes, I had hoped to see beaked whales or orca like I did in May 2018, but I was still pleasantly surprised when I spotted fin whales feeding in May 2019.

Marine Mammal Species Number of Sightings
May 2018 May 2019
Humpback whale 31 6
Northern right whale dolphin 1 2
Pacific white-sided dolphin 3 6
UNID beaked whale 1 0
Cuvier’s beaked whale 1 0
Gray whale 4 1
Minke whale 1 1
Fin whale 4 1
Blue whale 1 0
Transient killer whale 1 0
Dall’s porpoise 2 0
Northern fur seal 1 0
California sea lion 0 1

Pacific white-sided dolphin. Image source: Alexa Kownacki

Standardization is a common theme. Observing between years on standard transects, at set speeds, in different conditions using standardized tools is critical to collecting high quality data that is comparable across different periods. Scientists constantly think about quality control. We look for trends and patterns, similarities and differences, but none of those could be understood without having standard metrics.

The entire science party aboard the R/V Shimada in May 2019, including a marine mammal scientist, phytoplankton scientists, zooplankton scientists, and fisheries scientists, and oceanographers. Image Source: Alexa Kownacki

Literature Cited:

1Oliver, John E. (2005). Encyclopedia of world climatology. Springer.

 

 

Looking Back: Three Years After Grad School

By Courtney Hann (NOAA Fisheries, West Coast Sustainable Fisheries Division)

Thinking back, as Leigh’s first M.Sc. student for the GEMM Lab, I wonder what poignant insight could have prepared me for my future endeavors. And having faced years of perseverance and dedication in the face of professional unknowns, perhaps the answer is none at all; fore maybe it was the many unknown challenges met that led me to where I am today.

I graduated in December of 2015, with my Masters in Marine Resource Management, and stamped completion of my research with the GEMM Lab. While my research focused on marine mammals, my broader love for the Earth’s oceans and lands guided my determination to help keep our planet’s precious ecosystem resources wild and free. So when I landed a position in terrestrial ecology after graduating, I chose to embrace the challenging decision of jumping away from theoretical research and moving back towards applied research. Consequently, I fell in love with botany, moth identification, birding, and explored the unknowns of a whole new world of conservation biology in Scotland with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Not only was this work incredibly fun, interesting, and spontaneous, it offered me an opportunity to take my knowledge of developing research projects and apply it to nature reserve management. Every survey I completed and dataset I analyzed provided information required to determine the next land management steps for maximizing the conservation of rare and diverse species. From the GEMM Lab, I brought skills on: how to work through what, at times, seemed like an impassible barrier, complete tasks efficiently under a tight deadline, juggle multiple activities and obligations, and still make time to ponder the importance of seeing the bigger picture, while having fun learning new things.

Above: Botanizing and birding in Scotland with the best botanist I have ever known and my boss, Jeff Waddell, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

For me, the long game of seeing the bigger picture has always been key. And at the end of the day, I remained steadfast in answering the questioned I posed myself: Why do all of this work if not to make a truly positive impact? With that in mind, and with an expiring visa, I moved back to the West Coast of the U.S. and landed a contracting position with NOAA Fisheries. Where I met my second female mentor, Heidi Taylor, who inspired me beyond words and introduced me to the amazing world of fisheries management. All the while, I kept working my second part-time job with the West Coast Regional Planning Body (now called the West Coast Ocean Alliance, WCOA). Working two jobs allowed me to not only accelerate my learning capacity through more opportunities, but also allowed me to extend the reach of growing a positive impact.  For example, I learned about coordinating region-wide ocean management, facilitation of diverse groups, and working with tribes, states, and federal agencies while working for the WCOA. While there were moments that I struggled with overworking and fatigue, my training in graduate school to persevere really kicked in. Driven by the desire to attain a permanent position that complimented my talents and determination to provide sustained help for our Earth’s ecosystems, I worked for what sometimes felt endlessly to reach my goal. Getting there was tough, but well worth it!

One of the most challenging aspects for me was finishing my last publication for the GEMM Lab. I was no longer motivated by the research, since my career path had taken a different turn, and I was already burnt out form working overtime every week. Therefore, if it was not for Leigh’s encouraging words, the promise I made to her to complete the publication, and my other co-author’s invitation to submit a paper for a particular journal, then I likely would have thrown in the towel. I had to re-do the analysis several times, had the paper rejected once, and then ended up re-writing and re-structuring the entire paper for the final publication. In total, it took me two and half years and 100s of hours to complete this paper after graduating. Of course, there was no funding, so I felt a bit like an ongoing graduate student until the paper was finally accepted and the work complete. But the final acceptance of the paper was so sweet, and after years of uncertain challenges, a heavy weight had finally been lifted. So perhaps, if there is one piece of advice I would say to young graduate students, it is to get your work published before you graduate! I had one paper and one book chapter published before I graduated, and that made my life much easier. While I am proud for finishing the final third publication, I would have much preferred to have just taken one extra semester and finished that publication while in school. But regardless, it was completed. And in a catharsis moment, maybe the challenge of completing it taught me the determination I needed to persevere through difficult situations.

Above: Elephant seal expressing my joy of finishing that last publication! Wooohoooooo!

With that publication out of the way, I was able to focus more time on my career. While I no longer use R on a daily basis and do not miss the hours of searching for that one pesky bug, I do analyze, critique, and use scientific literature everyday. Moreover, the critical thinking, creative, and collaborative skills I honed in the GEMM Lab, have been and will be useful for the rest of my life. Those hours of working through complicated statistical analyses and results in Leigh’s office pay off everyday. Reading outside of work, volunteering and working second jobs, all of this I learned from graduate school. Carrying this motivation, hard work, determination, and perseverance on past graduate school was undeniably what led me to where I am today. I have landed my dream job, working for NOAA Fisheries Sustainable Fisheries Division on salmon management and policy, in my dream location, the Pacific Northwest.  My work now ties directly into ongoing management and policy that shapes our oceans, conservation efforts, and fisheries management. I am grateful for all the people who have supported me along the way, with this blog post focusing on the GEMM Lab and Leigh Torres as my advisor. I hope to be a mentor and guide for others along their path, as so many have helped me along mine. Good luck to any grad student reading this now! But more than luck, carry passion and determination forward because that is what will propel you onward on your own path. Thank you GEMM Lab, it is now time for me to enjoy my new job.

Above: Enjoying in my new home in the Pacific Northwest.